"Jacob's Ladder" by Wenceslas Hollar. (1607-1677)


The father of the children of Israel.

Jacob is the third patriarch of the Jewish people, son of Isaac and Rebecca, and grandson of Abraham, whose story is told in the book of Genesis (25:19 to the end of the book). On the critical view, the Jacob saga in Genesis is an amalgam of various sources and traditions. For all that, most critics believe that there is a core of historical fact to all the traditions; only a very few accept the notion that Jacob and the other two patriarchs are fictitious persons. From the point of view of the Jewish tradition, it is not, in any event, the historical Jacob who matters most but Jacob as he appears in Genesis as the progenitor of the twelve tribes constituting the “children of Israel.” In the Genesis narrative, Jacob, Yaakov in Hebrew, is so called because at his birth he seized hold of the heel (akev) of his twin brother, Esau (Genesis 25:25), while the name Israel was given to him by the angel with whom he wrestled (Genesis 32: 25-33).

A Struggle Between Brothers

Among the salient features in Jacob’s life, as told in Genesis, are that Esau sold him his birthright for a “mess of pottage” (24: 27-34); that, at the instigation of his mother, Rebecca, he tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him, instead of Esau, the blessing (ch. 27); that he fled from Esau’s wrath to his uncle Laban whose two daughters, Rachel and Leah, he married and by them, and by the two concubines Bilhah and Zilpah, he had twelve sons in all (chs. 29 and 30); that he came to sojourn in the land of Egypt (chs. 45 and 46); and that he was taken after his death to be buried in the land of his fathers (“the land of Israel”) in the cave of Mahpelah (ch.50).

It is a moot point whether the Genesis narrator approves or disapproves of Jacob’s subterfuges in wrestling the birthright and the blessing from his brother. The prophet Hosea certainly indicts Jacob for “supplanting” (akav, a pun on the name Yaakov) his brother and in subsequent Jewish commentary on the narrative there are echoes of disapproval of Jacob’s stratagems, if not of his right to both the birthright and the blessing. On the other hand, there are many attempts to defend Jacob as acting honorably given the circumstances in which he found himself. It has to be appreciated that Jacob is seen in the Jewish tradition as representing the Jewish people so that attacks on the character of the patriarch are often seen as, and, indeed, sometimes are, motivated by anti-Jewish sentiment.

In the Rabbinic literature in particular, the figure of Jacob is made to represent the people as a whole, the conflict between Jacob and Esau being seen as a reflection of the love-hate relationship between Rome and the Jews–fierce enemies and yet, after all, brothers. Later, this conflict is interpreted as the struggle for supremacy between Christianity=Esau and Judaism=Jacob. The description of Jacob as a man who dwells in tents, in contradistinction to Esau, the skilful hunter, the man of outdoors (Genesis 25:27), is made to signify that while the Roman ideal is to get things done in the world at large the Jewish ideal is to remain apart from the world to study God’s words in the “tents of Torah.” Much of the same is behind the Rabbinic identification of the angel who wrestled with Jacob as the guardian angel of Esau, that is, the narrative represents the struggle between the different spiritual ideals of Rome and Judea. This episode, in which the angel dislocates the thigh of Jacob, concludes with the verse (32:33): “That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.” Among the dietary laws is the rule that the muscle or sinew of the thigh (gid ha-nasheh) must not be eaten and the sinew is skillfully extracted from the meat of the animal (a process known as “porging”) before it is sold as kosher meat. In some communities, because of the difficulties of porging correctly, the hindquarters of an animal are not eaten at all.

The Pillar of Truth

The statement in the Talmud (Taanit 5b) that Jacob did not die, since Scripture, while speaking of Jacob’s embalming and burial, does not actually say, as it does of the other patriarchs, that he died, was undoubtedly meant to be figurative. Yet in the Middle Ages it was taken literally and the legend developed that Jacob did not, in fact, die and that he awaits patiently, in the Cave of Mahpelah, the final redemption of his children; there is a resemblance here to the legends about King Arthur and similar folk-heroes in other cultures.

In the Kabbalistic doctrine of the Sefirot, the powers in the Godhead, Jacob represents the power known as Tiferet (“Beauty”), the male principle, so to speak. The Zohar, for instance, sees each of the patriarchs as representing one of the Sefirot: Abraham, Hesed, the divine loving-kindness;  Isaac, Gevurah, the divine judgement; and Jacob, Tiferet, the power through which harmony is brought about between loving-kindness and judgement.

Hence Abraham is “the pillar of loving-kindness;”  Isaac, “the pillar of judgement;”  and Jacob, “the pillar of truth,” since truth is arrived at when apparently contradictory principles are reconciled. In the Lurianic Kabbalah, the two wives of Jacob represent two different aspects of the female element in the Godhead, the Sefirah Malkut, Sovereignty, also known as the Shekhinah. Already in the Rabbinic literature there is found an attempt to elevate Jacob to what cones close to a divine rank, as when it is said that the image of Jacob is engraved on the divine throne. Yet here it is only the “image” of Jacob that is on the throne. The Kabbalah is somewhat less reserved. While in the Kabbalah generally the patriarchs are no more than symbols for the Sefirot, yet with regard to Moses  (also representing Tiferet) and Jacob it is said in the Zohar that they became “the consort of the Shekhina,” Moses even during his lifetime, Jacob at his death. On this Tishby remarks:  “Here we can see the process of transition from a normal symbolic state to an identification of symbol with the thing symbolized, and this leads almost to the deification of the most outstanding men.” Tishby rightly qualifies this extraordinary idea by using the word “almost” since nowhere in Jewish literature and thought do we find anything even remotely like the Christian doctrine of the  Incarnation.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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